Quickie Book Review Of Arendt’s The Human Condition

The summer’s reading was three books by Hannah Arendt. I managed to finish two out of three (OK so I spent a lot of time busy doing nothing), the latest being The Human Condition. The final lines really surprised me. Who doesn’t know that you can skip reading a book by just reading the end? But in this case one would still be left hanging. But I get ahead of myself.

The synopsis (Arendt For Dummies): Hannah is grounded in the western traditional origins of philosophy. The book dwells (relies) on the Greek differentiation of the active life (vita activa) and the contemplative life (vita contemplativa) which the Greeks held to be preferable (she uses Latin and Greek words. I’ll stick with the “english-ized” versions). She spends considerable reader capital on establishing the very nature of the Greeks’ esteem for the contemplative life at the cost of the active life. The active life has three, what we would today call modalities, the conditions under which the active life is, exists , operates or is found. Basic is that of labor, the human activity of struggling to survive with all its necessary weariness, grief, toil and pain (animal laborans). This was eschewed by the Greeks with their preference for the contemplative life (homo sapien). It was what slaves and domestics were for (thus freeing up the household’s manager to pursue the higher form of activity – contemplation). Associated with the human as laborer is the human as maker (homo faber). It is the ingenious, creative, fabricating aspect of action where tools and objects are made to lighten the burden of animal laborans. Lastly is the aspect of speech and action, word and deed. With the Greeks this was the activity to be found in the forum with its discourse and politics. To engage in it the citizen must be free of the activity of the animal laborans (domestic laborer) as well as the homo faber (artisan or craftsman). She spends considerable energy in establishing an understanding of these conditions within the ancient civilization at the heart of western culture. And rightly so for it is unimaginable how the intricacies articulate in terms of individuals, social, cultural and governments up through the Romans, Middle Ages and Renaissance. One curious aspect she points out is the worldliness, or otherworldliness, of these conditions. Surprising as it seems, animal laborans is not of this world for whatever labor produces is consumed, and thus there is nothing to show, nothing left in the world. Ditto for speech and action which may produce change but leave no trace of their “performance”. Homo faber is very worldly, using the things of the world to produce the world with no regard for the “world” (sustainability, depletion, destruction, etc.). In turn, homo faber leaves the world as having been made by man. For Arendt the invention of the telescope (and microscope) turns everything on its head. She references Archimedes great desire to have a stable point by which he could move the world. She feels this point evolves with this invention, resulting with the demise of the priority of the contemplative life and the ascendency of the active life. Now there is a new perspective from a stable point, the point of universal, of objective, the point of view from “out there.” (no longer the contemplative outlook as definitive). To make a long story short, homo faber morphs into science (which can utilize anything to make anything, and doesn’t give a hoot as to repercussions), action and speech migrate to capitalism and the social (do be, do be, do, and put it on your resume, document it please), and the king of the hill becomes animal laborans (with all things measured by and given in terms of survival – of the species as well as the individual as specimen). So what is the surprise ending to her study? The contemplative life (so rudely displaced by Galileo) involved thought, primarily. Thought (contemplation of what matters (no, not Black Lives), events, the nature of things, etc.) had an incredible bearing on the how and why of ancient western civilization. What becomes of thought under the contemporary conditions of the active life? “Thought… is still possible, and no doubt actual, wherever men live under conditions of political freedom. Unfortunately… no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think.” “For if no other test but the experience of being active, no other measure but the extent of sheer activity were to be applied to the various activities within the vita activa, it might well be that thinking as such would surpass them all. Whoever has any experience in this matter will know how right Cato was [no, not OJ’s house guest!] when he said “Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.” And that’s the end of the story, the book. One is left with an experience akin to reading esoteric texts of Chinese, Indian or Japanese classical philosophy.

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